Leisure and culture: Learned societies

Pages 291-292

A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 2, the City of Chester: Culture, Buildings, Institutions. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2005.

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In the early 18th century Cestrians with scientific or antiquarian interests pursued them among small groups of friends like the circle of Henry Prescott, deputy registrar of Chester diocese. (fn. 1) Public lectures on practical science were being staged by 1750, and in the 1780s there was briefly a Free Conversation Society for cultivating 'moral and intellectual knowledge'. (fn. 2) A successor established in 1812, the Chester Literary and Philosophical Society, had among its two dozen members the chaplain of Little St. John's, the master of a commercial school, shopkeepers, clergymen, a physician, and the publisher of the Chester Chronicle, John Fletcher. It met to discuss papers and hear lectures, and bought scientific apparatus, but seems to have ceased after a year. (fn. 3) The Chester Cymmrodorion Society founded in 1822 had among its objects research into the history, customs, language, and literature of the Welsh, and held lectures and discussions at least in its early years but seems by the later 1830s to have become principally a dining club. (fn. 4)

The Chester Literary Improvement Society was apparently founded in 1847 by William Axon; probably the same body as the Literary and Scientific Society of 1849, its fate after 1855 is obscure. (fn. 5) A Chester Natural History Society lasted only from 1858 to 1859. (fn. 6)

The first of the two really successful learned societies, eventually known as the Chester Archaeological Society, was established in 1849 at a public meeting convened by the Revd. William Massie, rector of St. Mary's, which intended as much an architectural pressure group as a society for disinterested antiquarianism. The immediate inspiration seems to have been the 1849 meeting of the British Archaeological Association in Chester. The local body's original name had the words 'Architectural, Archaeological, and Historic' in that order, and the first three of its five leading objects were the improvement of architectural taste and practice, the illustration and preservation of the remains of antiquity (probably mainly meaning old buildings), and the recommendation of plans for new and restored buildings. To those ends the committee was always to include four practising architects or builders. A fifth of the early members were clergymen, but there was also a serious attempt to attract ladies, 'young men . . . engaged in the shops and offices of the city', and 'the industrious and intelligent artisan' through six categories of membership. Almost as many women as clergymen joined in the early years, making the society relatively unusual. Meetings were at first held in the City Library, over the Commercial News Room in Northgate Street (Fig. 177, p. 292). (fn. 7) Part of the motivation for the society was an overt hostility to neo-classical architecture, as exemplified by the parish churches of St. Bridget (1829) and St. Paul (1830), and a corresponding adoration of Gothic in church architecture and 'medieval' timber-framing in domestic and commercial buildings, but opinion among members was not uniform, (fn. 8) and the society soon spread its interests into antiquarian matters broadly defined. For instance in 1852 it lobbied, unsuccessfully, for the retention locally of the palatinate records, as it did for their return in 1912–14. (fn. 9) Meetings certainly included architectural subjects but also ranged widely over archaeology and history. (fn. 10)

The society's impetus was faltering from the late 1850s and failed altogether in 1872: no minutes were kept, meetings became infrequent and informal, the Journal appeared irregularly and then not at all, and membership fell away, but the society was never formally wound up. It was relaunched as the Archaeological and Historic Society of the County and City of Chester and North Wales by Dean Howson in 1883 and was definitely afloat again from 1886, when a new constitution was adopted; the society's declared objects were now the publication of archaeological and historical information and the preservation of antiquities in the newly opened Grosvenor Museum. The Journal was restarted under the successive editorships of Thomas Hughes and J. P. Earwaker, and membership rose to 267 in 1888–9. The new museum played an important part in the revival, providing a location for meetings and storage for the society's library and collections, accumulated from the early years and hitherto kept in very poor conditions at the Albion Rooms in Lower Bridge Street. (fn. 11) The renewal of interest was also due in large measure to excitement over the discovery of extensive Roman remains in the city, and many members had an active involvement in local archaeology. (fn. 12) A regular winter lecture programme of six or seven meetings was established, excursions to places of historical interest were begun in 1894, and the Journal appeared regularly. Those core activities remained essentially the same in the 1990s. (fn. 13)

Figure 177:

Commercial News Room and City Library

The revived society also renewed its role as an influential body of opinion in favour of conservation, but without the ecclesiological slant of the early years. It took a part, for example, in preserving Bishop Lloyd's House in 1898 and was especially active from the mid 1920s to the Second World War, when it helped to save St. Peter's church, the Blue Bell Inn, and the old Newgate. Although it resumed lobbying the city council in the 1950s, the formation of Chester Civic Trust in 1959 provided a new forum for such public campaigns. (fn. 14) Management of the Grosvenor Museum was transferred to the city council in 1915, (fn. 15) but the society was increasingly important as a collector of archival materials, especially the papers of such local antiquaries as J. P. Earwaker (1898), Canon Rupert Morris (1918), and Thomas Hughes (1925–6). Only with the appointment of the first city archivist in 1948 did the society willingly give up its role as a de facto local record office. (fn. 16) Archaeology returned to the forefront of the society's interests in the 1920s and remained there for the rest of the 20th century. Its centrality was signalled in the 1960s by the change of name to the Chester Archaeological Society. The society took a leading part in the excavation of the amphitheatre in the 1960s, but from the 1970s its role was restricted to providing volunteers for digs directed by professional archaeologists employed by the city council. (fn. 17)

The city's other long-lasting learned body, the Natural Science Society, was founded in 1871 under the direct inspiration of Charles Kingsley, who arrived in Chester as a canon of the cathedral in 1870 and gave a series of lectures on botany. The society took root and grew branches which by 1911 covered almost every aspect of natural science. Lectures on literature and art were dropped after the First World War. The society was a leading promoter of the Grosvenor Museum and of the School of Science, and had over 1,000 members in the early 20th century. Popular lectures and field trips, rather than active research, became the main emphasis from the 1920s. Scientific Proceedings were published 1874–1907 and 1947–51, and the society remained alive in 1995. (fn. 18)


  • 1. Diary of Henry Prescott, passim.
  • 2. Georgian Chester, ed. A. M. Kennett, 39.
  • 3. C.C.A.L.S., ZCR 163/1; members identified from ibid. ZAB 5, ff. 137, 201; Pigot's Commercial Dir. (1818/20), 99–108.
  • 4. T. Edwards, Chester Cambrian Societies, 1760–1906 (priv. print. 1906), 4–43.
  • 5. C.C.A.L.S., ZCR 145/1–9.
  • 6. J.D. Siddall, Formation of Chester Soc. of Natural Science, Literature, and Art (1911), 6–7.
  • 7. J.C.A.S. [o.s.], i, pp. i, iii, 1–4, 77; v, pp. vii–viii; A. G. Crosby, Chester Arch. Soc. 1849–1999, 5–15; T.H.S.L.C. cxlvii. 127–9.
  • 8. J.C.A.S. [o.s.], i. 12, 31–43, 187; vi. 260–1; vii. 398–405.
  • 9. Ibid. i. 326–9; n.s. xix. 233–4; xxi. 188–9.
  • 10. Ibid. [o.s.], passim.
  • 11. J.C.A.S. n.s. i, esp. 99, 114–18, 130, 161–3, 228–32; Crosby, Chester Arch. Soc. 19–27, 49–52.
  • 12. Crosby, Chester Arch. Soc. 53.
  • 13. J.C.A.S. n.s. passim.
  • 14. Crosby, Chester Arch. Soc. 37, 54–5, 63, 69–72, 88–90.
  • 15. Below, Museums: Grosvenor Museum.
  • 16. Crosby, Chester Arch. Soc. 58–60, 73–5.
  • 17. Ibid. 36, 78–87, 92.
  • 18. Siddall, Formation; H. Robinson, Chester Soc. of Natural Science, Literature, and Art: First 100 Years (1971).